Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Five or So Questions with Shoshana Kessock and Abigail Corfman on Smoke and Glass

I interviewed Shoshana Kessock and Abigail Corfman on their new project, Smoke and Glass, launching soon on Kickstarter!

Tell me a little bit about Smoke and Glass. What's the game about?
(SHOSHANA) The book, Smoke and Glass, is a Dickensian-steampunk Fate Core world set in the magical world of Meridia, a world modernizing after hundreds of years of magical war. It's a game about the haves and have nots in a world trying to come out of their own dark age, caught between those that have power and folks who have to choose to step outside of the law just to survive. The book is written by new author and designer Abigail Corfman, edited by John Adamus, and laid out by Tiara Lynn Agresta, with beautiful art by the talented Nicole Cardiff and Jonathan Wyke.

What about the setting really intrigues you? 

(SHOSHANA) I’ve always been intrigued by worlds that take a left turn at genre conventions. You have certain expectations of fantasy worlds, of steampunk, and worlds that have magic. Any time you can push outside of those expectations, you have the potential to create a new take on what’s already been done. So when Abigail spoke to me about a world where the haves and have-nots fight for hold on a city that is at a crossroads between magic and steampunk-style technology? You have my attention. Then you add in the social questions this game brings up about gender politics, economic inequality, and what one is willing to do for (magic) power, and you have my attention. That’s why I’m really excited Phoenix Outlaw is getting the chance to develop this game.

What motivated your team to design in Fate Core?

(ABIGAIL) I love the elegance of the system. I like that it's simple, and that it's easy to make things happen. I've always seen roleplaying as an extension of children playing pretend in a garden, and the closer the system can bring me to the flexibility of "Okay, now I'm a dragon!" the happier I am with it. In other settings I've played I'd have to stat out the dragon. In Fate, I can just write the words "Giant Fire Breathing Dragon" on a note card, and I'm good to go.

Also, the philosophy of Fate Core resonates with me. It treats roleplaying as a collaborative storytelling enterprise, and that approach is baked into the mechanics, instead of just stated. The character creation process and aspect-creation options give the players a crazy amount of power to shape the world, and the fate point system means players are encouraged to make trouble for their characters in exchange for more awesome later. It's an economy dedicated to creating exciting stories, and that encourages players to own their own fascinating misfortune, instead of having it thrust on them by the storyteller. Its very nature discourages the playing to win, dungeon master-versus-players mentality. So I like it.

Also it was really easy to adapt Fare Core to my world. Because it's really easy to adapt Fate Core to most things. I'm not getting paid to say any of this.

What do you think magic adds to steampunk? 

(ABIGAIL) Steampunk is hugely about technology. Awesome, smoke-belching, gear-spinning, clinkity-clanking technology. Technology is a way of interacting with the world by way of mastery and perfect understanding. You need to study and experiment and know how every facet of how your steam-powered invention works for it to work. And once it's working, you'll know why it works, and that if it breaks, it's for a reason you'll be able to comprehend and touch.

Magic is a way of interacting with the world that involves acknowledging the limits of our understanding. The word magic itself implies a force that we have no real explanation for, a system of light and energy that can be examined and mapped, but only to a certain extent. Magic is always fundamentally a black box. The incantations we pour into one side of the black box come out the other side as rabbits, silk scarves, and lightening bolts. And they only real justification as to why that's the case boils down to: "It's magic."

I think putting magic in a steampunk, or any technology heavy setting adds a delightful tension between the world of concrete technology, and the incomprehensible realm of magic. In Smoke & Glass, the people of Kroy are simultaneously covetous, and terrified of magic, and try to use technology to control it. Since magic is literally in the blood of certain people, they become the focus of this balance of fear and desire. On the other side of things, inventors have developed a substance called saltglass that's very effective in repelling and controlling magic and magic users, but producing it takes a heavy toll in labor and human lives.

What do you hope people get out of the game when they play?

(ABIGAIL) I hope they get to run a heist game with magic in it. Because that's pretty much my favorite thing in the universe to do.

In addition, one of the things that was important to me while building this world was to play with societal norms. There are ingrained beliefs in American society that influence everything we do that are so basic it's hard to even remember they're there. Like the idea that being masculine means you're tough and should never cry, and being feminine means you're pretty and delicate. Assumptions that are often accurate, very limiting, and self-perpetuating. It's hard to make a fantasy setting that changes these basic ideas because they inform so much of how we think and what we're used to, and have been pervasive throughout English history--the era and location we most like borrowing from for our fantasy.

In Smoke and Glass, I tried to play with gender roles. What is life like in a society where masculine means magical and feminine means deadly? What are the problems that arise from THOSE stereotypes? Smoke and Glass isn't a utopia. It isn't better than our society: they just have a different set of societal norms that people make assumptions based on and are pressured to conform to. Slaughtering animals is women's work, and the other girls make fun of little Daisy because she doesn't like blood. No one cares if Roger cries about it, but they expect him to follow in his father's footsteps and become a priest, because otherwise he's getting drafted by the army and milked for his magical blood until he's fifty.

So I hope people can use Smoke and Glass to explore a world with some different social conventions. They can also, if they like, use it to explore some very familiar economic ones, like exploitation of workers and class warfare, which is fought on the front lines by by an order of masked Robin Hoods and a legions of angry urchins in Kroy. The distance of a fantasy world can let us look at issues we're too close to think about clearly in real life. The divide between rich and poor is a contentious issue right now, and I hope that examining it through a fictional lens of magical Dickensian England might be interesting and helpful. Or at least cathartic.

What else can we look forward to from Phoenix Outlaw Productions?

(SHOSHANA) We’ve got a number of other projects on the horizon, both in tabletop RPGs and in live action roleplaying games. Josh Harrison, co-founder of the company with me, is writing a brilliant game called Dreamdiver, which is cyberpunk-meets-Inception. That’s also going to be a Fate Core game that people can look for more announcements about around August. After that, I am developing a tabletop RPG as well called Wanderlust, which is about humans and faeries traveling through space looking for a new planet to call home. That book is slated to come out after Dreamdiver and there should be announcements about it come Metatopia in November this year. In the LARP world, we’re working on developing a collection of freeform games for release next year.

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